Glebe safety an increasing concern
Rebecca McKeen, owner/manager of McKeen Metro, has seen first-hand more-frequent incidences in the Glebe of street drugs, vandalism and antisocial behaviour and is calling for action to combat the problem. Photo: Liz McKeen
By Roger Smith
For Rebecca McKeen, the last straw was the unconscious man behind her store, McKeen Metro, in late September. Grainy security video shows a man wandering into the lane and urinating on the delivery door. He sits down, fiddles with what looks like a hacksaw, then keels over.
After staff called 911, police woke the man, questioned him and let him go. A search of the Second Avenue parking garage turned up a loaded needle and empty packaging for knives.
“He’d obviously shot up in the parking garage and then wandered into our laneway,” says McKeen. “They just let the guy wander off in the community, obviously high.”
McKeen was already fed up with shady behaviour and inadequate policing that she believes is making Glebe more dangerous and less appealing. A fire extinguisher tossed off the top floor of the parking garage in April. Increased shoplifting as food prices rise. More homeless people, many with drug addictions and mental health problems. Discarded needles in parks. Aggressive panhandlers, including one who has personally threatened her.
“People say it’s not as bad as Toronto or Vancouver, it’s not as bad as Centretown,” says McKeen. “But people don’t realize how close we are to becoming just like Centretown. I think there’s a false sense of security that it won’t happen here.”
A new police “data visualization tool” released last month allows you to zoom in to see where, when and what crimes have been committed in the Glebe. It shows about 130 offences so far this year, from harassment to car thefts. Beyond crime, the homeless are also a problem, especially for Bank Street businesses.
“We’re concerned about the guys asking for a quarter when they’re tweaking on meth,” said Ian Boyd, owner of Compact Music and a board member of the BIA. “They walk up and down the street yelling. They’re scaring people. People are just going to go to Walmart and stop coming to the Glebe.”
Last month, the Royal Bank at First and Bank shut down evening and weekend access to its ATMs, citing “security concerns” but declining to give specifics. Up the street at Fourth, Scotiabank ATMs used to be accessible 24/7 but the branch started closing them at 6 p.m. last year because of problems with the homeless.
“When you walk in the morning and see people sleeping on the floor, you can’t have that, it’s bad for business,” said assistant branch manager Alex Murray. “We’ve had client complaints and employees complained about their own safety.”
But Debbie Long insists the top priority isn’t more policing, “it’s all about affordable housing.”
“Housing first, then social services to solve their problems,” says Long, co-chair of the GCA’s health, housing and social services committee. “You can’t solve problems when they’re still on the streets.”
Trouble is, appropriate housing is limited. Police, outreach services and shelters are stretched for resources. Shelters and jails are often full. Even police admit their focus on higher-crime areas like the Byward Market chases problems to other neighbourhoods.
“It’s just money, it’s all about money,” says Long. “There’s just not enough to go around.”
Differing views spilled over at an October 24 meeting set up at McKeen’s request with councillor Shawn Menard, the GCA, GNAG, the BIA and Ottawa police. It didn’t go well – some participants were put off by McKeen’s confrontational behaviour. According to the minutes, she challenged Menard on his spending priorities, including tree replacement on Bank Street.
“If there’s a resource issue for police and outreach services,” she explained later, “why is the city spending $500,000 on trees?”
While Menard agrees there are misplaced priorities – “like $419 million for Lansdowne” – he defends the tree expenditure and urges more patience.
“This is a problem right across the city,” he says. “This isn’t just a simple solution. We need to talk this through. We can’t just flood the streets with police.”
A small committee from the GCA, GNAG and the BIA met again on November 20 – without McKeen. They’re planning ways to get more money and help for affordable housing, emergency shelters, mental health and social services.
But McKeen has new reason to be skeptical about promised remedies. The Second Avenue parking garage was supposed to be safer with a new security firm in place, but on November 18, licence plates were stolen from a vehicle there, probably to put on a stolen car. The vehicle was McKeen’s delivery van.
“I’m tired of people saying it will take a long time or there is nothing we can do,” she says. “Resources need to be reallocated to the immediate needs, not the long-term needs.”
Though her store is a pillar of the community – it donates up to 10 per cent of profits to local charities – McKeen realizes not everyone agrees with her stand or style. But she vows to keep speaking out and while her store will remain a fixture in the Glebe, her family might not.
“We’re going to fight for our community, or we’ll leave, because I don’t want my kids living down the street from a crack house or not be able to take off their shoes to run in the park.”
Why some in the Glebe are worried
The nightmare scenario had a happy ending, but it fuelled the debate over drugs and homelessness in the Glebe.
In September, a three-year-old boy found an empty needle in the Glebe Parents Day Care play area along Patterson Creek and pricked himself with it. He had to take three medications a day for four weeks as a precaution against HIV. The boy’s mother posted an anonymous warning to parents on Facebook: “Please try to teach your kids about not picking up garbage and specifically needles.”
As luck would have it, one of several parents I met outside the day care in late November admitted to being the mother of the boy. She agreed to talk but asked me not to use her name. She was “initially shocked” when teachers called her but quickly realized it wasn’t a big problem. Her son is fine now, staff have stepped up searches of the yard, and she hopes it was a “one-off incident.” As for concerns the Glebe is getting more dangerous, she waves them off, explaining: “I’m from Chicago.”
Avery Berman, who was dropping off his daughter that same morning, was less worried about needles than about a homeless man living in Glebe Memorial Park just behind his house.
“I wanted to go with my girls to jump in the leaves, but he was screaming so we turned around.”
I went over to the park to check and found a man packing up his tent, sleeping bag and backpack. Kevin told me he’s 31 and had been sleeping here for a couple of weeks. He’d been given notice to leave and promised a ride to the Salvation Army shelter, but he didn’t want to go there. “I’ll set up my tent somewhere else, probably closer to downtown.”
Two city contractors waited nearby in a truck to clean up whatever Kevin left behind. “Fifty-fifty, we find drugs,” the driver said. “Plenty of needles.” His view on how the homeless are dealt with: “They treat the symptoms, not the causes.” A police officer arrived to make sure there was no trouble with the “dismantlement.” Then the bylaw officer who had served Kevin’s eviction notice. And two members of the police outreach team. A Salvation Army driver was on the way.
Seven people to move one man – that’s a lot of resources when money is tight, especially when it happens over and over. Kevin refused to go the shelter because they wouldn’t let him take his tent. Dragging it behind him, he headed out of the park.
“I’m going to make some money,” he yelled his shoulder. “Okay,” replied the bylaw officer, “Just make sure you don’t set up in a city park, or we’ll kick you out again.”
But that was most likely to happen – the bylaw officer predicted the only thing that will get Kevin into a shelter is the winter cold.
Police ‘Crime Map’ pinpoints crime by neighbourhood
A new Ottawa Police data visualization tool released last month (data.ottawapolice.ca) allows you to focus in on the Glebe to see where, when and what crimes have been commit-ted. It reports about 130 offences so far this year in the Glebe, from harassment and assaults to theft under $5,000 and car thefts.
Roger Smith is a retired journalist and copy editor of the Glebe Report.